This painting, from the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder (c. 1568-1625), was inspired by a story written by the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), about the divine family of Latona (known as Leto to the Greeks). She was the mother of the twin deities, Apollo and Diana (aka Artemis), who are depicted as newborns in the painting. The father of the children was the mighty arch-god, Jupiter (or Zeus), but as he was already married to a wrathful queen goddess, Leto decided to go into hiding with her newborns to keep them away from Jupiter’s jealous wife. This brings us to Latona’s encounter with the Lycian peasants. As the story goes, wearied Latona reached a certain small marshy lake in Lycia not long after she gave birth to her twins. She was understandably tired and irritable at this point, and she desperately wanted to drink a handful or two of water from the pond. Nevertheless, local farmers—the so-called Lycian peasants—did not react kindly to the appearance of the mysterious woman with her twin babies. When Latona began trying to drink some of the water, the locals started to heckle her and some went so far as to stomp and splash in the water, making it too muddy to drink. Prior to this rude display from the locals, Latona had evidently been concealing her divine nature (she and her children were in hiding, after all), but the behavior of the Lycian peasants ultimately caused the goddess to lash out with her godly powers. As narrated by the Roman poet, Ovid:
“[The Lycian peasants] even disturbed the water itself
with their hands and feet, and spitefully stirred the soft and swirling
mud right up from the bottom by jumping wildly about.
Latona’s anger made her forget her thirst for the moment.
She refused to humble herself any longer before these louts
or to plead any more for kindness in such an ungoddesslike manner.
She raised her hands to the heavens and cried, ‘May you live in your filthy
pool for ever!’ Her prayer was answered.
[E]ven today they continue to wag
their tongues in loud and unseemly arguments; shameless as ever,
although they are under the water, they’ll try to indulge in abuse.
Their voices too have gone hoarse; their throats are inflated and swollen;
their noisy quarrels have stretched their jaws to a hideous width.
Their shoulders rise to their heads as their necks appear to have vanished;
their backs are green, while their huge protruding bellies are white.
They leap about in the muddy pool transmuted to frogs.’”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 6, approximately lines 363-381)
It is this tale of the rude Lycians and Latona’s revenge that inspired Jan Brueghel the Elder’s painting. Latona and her children can be seen by the water’s edge at the bottom left corner of the artwork, talking to two peasants whose heads have already taken on frog-like features. Ironically for the Lycian peasants, although being turned into frogs is not a pleasant fate, they might also be counted as lucky that they got off with such a light punishment after slighting Latona. Especially after Apollo and Diana grew up, Latona and her children proved to be an incredibly wrathful and brutal trio.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.